‘We’re Not Against It:’ COVID-19 Vaccine Poses Questions For Iowa’s Spanish-Speakers

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Maria Ramos, Storm Lake Councilwoman, receives the COVID-19 Vaccine earlier this month. "I decided that I am so tired of this pandemic that I can't just sit around and wait for it to be over instead of being part of the solution"
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By Kassidy Arena, Iowa Public Radio News

The Problem

For many Latinos in Iowa, they feel they’re not getting enough information about the COVID-19 vaccine to decide whether they want to take it. Many Spanish-speakers in the state are hesitant about receiving the vaccine. While reporting this story, I asked Spanish speakers what they wanted to know about the COVID-19 vaccine. A woman in Marshalltown texted me questions:

She asked how safe the vaccine actually is, what the side effects are and will it keep her safe from the virus. She was worried about seeming “tonta” or dumb by even asking these questions.

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Patty Ritchie said this is pretty common for Spanish speakers. That kind of fear can stop someone from taking a vaccine. Ritchie is the first and only Latina on the Crawford County board of health in western Iowa—a county that is 29 percent Latino.

“We’re not against it,” Ritchie said. “We need to educate ourselves. And that’s what I’m going to do for me. So therefore, I would expect that other members in the community would do the same thing.”

She said it is important to understand that she and most other Latinos are not anti-vaccine, they just have questions. And so far, nobody has been able to answer them.

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“Am I going to take it right away? No, I think I’d like some more information,” Ritchie admitted. “I’m just going to be honest!”

The Kaiser Family Foundation studied reactions like Ritchie’s. It found only 26 percent of Hispanic people in the United States would take the vaccine right away. That’s compared with 40 percent of white people who said they would take the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible. A University of Iowa doctor knows firsthand one reason why this may be.

Pulmonologist Rolando Sanchez specializes in the respiratory system. He works with both English-speaking patients and Spanish speakers. When COVID-19 became a larger issue in Iowa, he led question and answer sessions in Spanish about the virus. Sanchez said there are still so many theories and beliefs surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine that have not yet been dismissed by Spanish speakers.

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“And believe it or not, there’s a lot of people that love to listen to the theories and it’s hard to know these days what is true and what is not true,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez said some of the false perceptions about the vaccine include implanting microchips, unhealthy additives and infertility. He stressed none of these conspiracy theories have any merit and the vaccine is perfectly ethical.

“I can tell you over the last 30 years, nobody is more protected than a research individual. Because there is such a huge paranoia now that if you make a tiny mistake, your laboratory might be shut down forever,” Sanchez explained. “Nobody is going to even dare to write a protocol that is jeopardizing somebody’s health.”

Sanchez said both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine, both authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, work like a security system for the body. The vaccine tells the body what to look out for and how to fight it.

“What we’re doing is we’re exposing that ID to our immune systems. When the real virus tries to infect your body, because your immune system already knows it, is going to react and block the infection. But there is no manipulation of our genes,” Sanchez said.

What’s Being Done

The Iowa Commission of Latino Affairs is currently working on helping Latinos understand what’s true and what’s not. Chair Caleb Knutson is creating a public service announcement specifically for Latinos.

“I’ve been talking to different friends, colleagues throughout the state. And I was surprised how many pillars in our community and the Latino community in Iowa are unsure of the vaccine,” Knutson said.

Knutson participated in a trial for the Pfizer vaccine. He had hoped to be “unblinded”—so he would have known if he had the vaccine or a placebo. That way, he would have been a stronger voice for the outreach project.

Unfortunately, he said the University of Iowa, which ran the trial, will not let him know as of the moment. The trial leaders told him they appreciate his work, and they will reach out to other Latinos within the healthcare system to help with his vaccine outreach.

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“If people in my circle group are unsure of this, then there’s gonna be a lot of others. And I just want to ensure that our community doesn’t fall further behind because of the pandemic,” Knutson said.

But he said in Iowa, there are not many resources for him to turn to for help. That’s why he reached out to Jovelyn Castellanos, a program coordinator for Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Texas. She works in outreach and community relations. Her outreach projects have worked in her area. She said more Latinos are getting vaccinated there.

“The health systems are just so complex that health navigation is so difficult and can be so overwhelming sometimes,” Castellanos said.

That’s why Knutson wants to make it easier for Iowa’s Latinos to understand the vaccine. But he said it will not be easy.

“After hearing all their successes in Texas, that, you know, after having a conversation with Jovelyn, I feel like we can’t operate at that scale, but we can make a dent,” Knuston said.

Castellanos recommended Knutson use easy-to-read infographics and community-organized outreach to help educate Latinos, Spanish-speakers and others about the COVID-19 vaccine.

History Behind The Problem

There’s a long history of Latinos being a little distrustful of the health field. As recent as the 1970s and 80s, Spanish-speaking women in the U.S. were victims of a medical program which sterilized them without their knowledge. This type of eugenics program happened in Iowa, too. More than 2,000 individuals were sterilized under the cover of the program.

Lina-Maria Murillo studies and teaches that at the University of Iowa. Murillo said this problematic history has caused a catastrophic rift between Spanish-speakers and health professionals.

“Those are the legacies that become mythologized for people,” Murillo explained. “They may not themselves quite understand why they don’t trust the thing. But they know that they shouldn’t trust the thing.”

Murillo explained how this sort of history stays within a community. And when the stories are negative or even pose dangerous situations, that will affect how people in current day act which, she said, they are completely within reason to do.

“The way that you’re treated in that moment leaves this sort of lasting impression, that then becomes something that can get passed on, like a mother talking to her daughter,” Murillo said.

That’s why Murillo isn’t necessarily surprised to hear many Latinos, especially those who only speak Spanish, are hesitant about taking the vaccine. Murillo said this is even more likely if they are the first or second generation to live in the United States. The past is riddled with people of color and immigrants being abused or manipulated by health professionals.

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“The assumptions that doctors and nurses and other people have about people of color and what they know and what they don’t know, and how they should be taught,” Murillo listed. “All of that breeds distrust.”

To fight that mistrust, community relations expert Castellanos said vaccine outreach should be treated like voter outreach. State leadership must meet Latinos where they are, to help instill confidence and understanding.

“To make good health decisions, people have to understand the information, process the information in a culturally and linguistically manner, in order to make effective decisions for themselves and also for their families,” Castellanos said.

The Iowa Commission of Latino Affairs is currently working with Rolando Sanchez, M.D. to arrange a possible bilingual question and answer session about the vaccine.

Knutson is in the middle of planning the outreach initiative, but until then, Sanchez along with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises if the vaccine is available, take it.

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